Thursday, 7 April 2016.
I find myself writing this, sitting in a small laundry in the Nakano ward, on a raining Tokyo day, now, into my fifth day of my three-month tour of Japan.
Only now have I managed to get some time to write about my first experiences in this totally foreign, yet, to me, innately familiar, land. To say the least, from a South African, and more specifically a Cape Townian perspective, every here is different, and I love it for that. The trains, the subways, the streets, are constantly found with a multitude of people in them, at most times of the day, going to and fro on their way, to who knows where I cannot venture to say. The people are fashionable here, but diverse in every way, from the black suited salarymen, to the short dressed women of different ages, and the quirky, yet stylish, hipsters who follow trends from both abroad and local, the anime scene being a unique, and surprisingly not too common, one. Foreigners, or gaijin, are spotted every once in a while on a train or in the streets, but are definitely a minority here, and it adds to the novelty and experience of being in a foreign land.
I arrived in Japan late at night and my first goal was to get to an area called Kanda and then to the Capsule Value Kanda, a capsule hotel that I had booked for the night. Finding the hotel was not as easy as I had thought, with most street names being in Kanji, the written form of Japanese, but after discovering free wifi in the Metro I managed to get some idea of where I was and was to go, but not really because it only worked in the Metro, underground, and as soon as I emerged into the streets of Kanda I was once more clueless to where I was. Fortunately, for a foreigner, the Japanese are very helpful and I was accompanied right to the door of the hotel by a friendly girl, who went out of her way to help me find the place, this at 10:30 at night. We did, however, walk up and down the streets for a while because even the people of Tokyo do not quite know where everything is, it’s just so vast and intricate.
My stay at the capsule hotel was a pleasant one and there I had my first experience of a Japanese-style washroom, which I would assume is much like it would be at an onsen, a hot water spring. The washroom consisted of a large tub and a row of three small stools, with a movable showerhead opposite each one, and three large soap, shampoo, and conditioner dispensers. Whilst sitting, you go about your business cleaning yourself, whereafter, if you have the time, you can enjoy the bath. I had no time to test out the bath, as I had slept in a bit and my checkout time was looming. I would leave that experience for my stay at an onsen, in Hakone, during one of my later stops.
Next, on my second day, I made my way to the Yodoya Guesthouse, in the Nakano ward, or Nakano-ku in Japanese. Navigating the subway and train stations was becoming progressively easier and less confusing as I went on. A good move is to purchase a rechargeable Pasmo or Suica card, to make transport payments much more convenient. All you do is swipe your card when entering and exiting a station, and the fair is automatically deducted based on where you started and ended your journey. Although the train system vaguely began to make sense, once you emerge from a station you are again faced with bustling streets, uncipherable words, and no familar landmarks with which to orientate yourself. That said, you have no idea where you really are. As you surface, with hundreds of other commuters, and even more people on sidewalks, or waiting for their turn at a crossing, little restaurants and small bars line the streets, with convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart scattered in between them. Besides the, somewhat, regular sight of western franchises like KFC or Starbucks, what is found at almost every 500 metres apart are vending machines selling soft drinks, beer and canned coffee. One of the canned coffee brands features a business-suited Tommy Lee Jones, for a brand called Boss. The canned coffee is not bad if you are in of your caffein fix, albeit a bit on the cold side. I have, however, seen a hot option on some of the vending machines, although I have no idea how they might heat it in.
At the Yadoya hostel, I met a Serbian-born German, living in Spain, who had apparently drunk way too much the previous night in the Golden Gai area, in Shinjuku, after he had met some British travellers. He joined me in exploring the Nakano Broadway centre, which is a famous spot for all things Otaku. Otaku means geek in Japanese, but perhaps with a much more obsessive and focused edge. The next two days we explored together, visiting the Golden Gai, again, the Imperial Palace and the Ueno Zoo. We also joined the rest of the travellers at the Yodoya hostel for an annual picnic in a nearby park in Nakano, called Hinami, celebrating spring and the blossoming of the cherry trees, known as sakura.
A few other things that have stood out for me so far is that a lot of people ride bicycles here, both young and old. The bicycles are mostly ridden on the sidewalk, where everyone walks but none of the bicycles ever seems to collide into any pedestrians. And some of them really pick up some speed, especially the women! Similarly, everyone here seems to always be eating or drinking at any of the thousands of small restaurants and bars found knitted together in the main streets and side alleys of Tokyo. I wonder if anyone ever cooks at home or if it is just because everyone is happy to be out and about because of the weather becoming warmer. Efficiency is also another distinguishing feature of most of the systems I have encountered in Tokyo, and I can assume the whole of Japan. From removing your shoes when entering a home or a sleeping area, to standing in queues when waiting for a train, and keeping your trash with you to dispose of at home or at a not-too-common bin, everything they do makes sense and works for the betterment and consideration of everyone else, except maybe for the weirder side of Otaku and some of their more vulgar fetishes, but that I might try to explain another time. Oh, and last but by far not the least, the women in Tokyo are very cute and most beautiful.